Racer Boy: Pinewood Derby – Your First Taste of Victory or Defeat

By Rob Krider

Most of us gearheads experienced our first competitive car race in the pinewood derby. A seven inch long piece of wood, four nails, four plastic wheels and a sloped track – that’s it. Gravity is the only motor in this race. At first glance it seems like there isn’t much to the pinewood derby. However, after getting your rear kicked your first year you realize that a pinewood derby car can be as complicated as any real race car. Aerodynamics, rolling friction, center of mass, weight, alignment, lane choice, there are all sorts of things that can make the car roll down the track or get stuck halfway down the hill. Of course, as a seven year old kid you have no idea how to change the center mass of a pinewood derby car, that’s where dad comes along.

An official Boy Scouts of America Pinewood Derby kit is about five bucks. This is the first and last time for the rest of your life, that racing will only cost you five bucks. A can of spray paint and some stickers may rack up a few more coins at the local hobby shop, but all in all you can build one of these racers for less than it costs to go to McDonalds and try to stop your heart.

The Boy Scouts of America started this craze in Manhattan Beach, CA back in 1953 and still hold the reigns on it. Other groups like Awana also run pinewood derby events. It’s a cool thing for the kids and easy for clubs to set up. All you need is a sloped track for the cars to roll down. Some tracks are more high tech and have computer timing and scoring.

Because you aren’t actually driving these cars at high speeds, obviously there isn’t much adrenaline rush in pinewood derby racing. But, as the cars roll down the wooden track there is a bit of a high while you’re waiting to see if your car comes in first. In fact, most people aren’t breathing as the cars are in motion. If you win, you are loving life, if you lose, you want to go home and kick the dog.

If the pinewood derby car is built tough it can last the entire event. Most cars lose a wheel or two during the day (easily fixed by pushing the nail and wheel back into the chassis). The hardest part on the cars isn’t the racing, it’s the thirty or forty eight year old kids grabbing, drooling on, and dropping the car over and over again between rounds of racing (ruining the perfect alignment you worked so hard on).

After a solid week of making sawdust in the garage and trying to turn a wooden block into something that resembles a car you head out to the pinewood derby race. The cars are weighed in (you can make minor adjustments here) and inspected to make sure they are using only Boy Scout supplied components (no cheater axles or tricked out wheels). Then the cars go to impound. The cars are put onto the track and raced three at a time (depending on the width of the track, I’ve seen some ten lanes wide). The race consists of a lever being pulled and the cars all being released to roll down the track. First one to the finish line is the winner. Think of it as drag racing a two by four. The racing is an elimination format and during the event, the winners keep advancing while the losers head back to the trailer (or the tool box, in this case). Finally it will come down to two cars. They will race in a double elimination format (swapping lanes so there is no track advantage). The final car is crowned the champion.

Racers are comprised of Cub Scouts. These are good old fashioned honest young kids working hard for an achievement patch. If you want to compete you’ll need to be a kid between the ages of 5 and 12 years old. So, either invent a time machine and go back to race, or do what I did, get married and get yourself a son. Then you’ll have to sit around impatiently until the kid is old enough to become a Cub Scout. Once he finally hits that magical age, get yourself a drill press, a Dremel, some sand paper and get to work. I mean, get to work, uh, letting your son build the car.

There is glory in the pinewood derby. Winners earn great looking trophies and move on to District Championships. At the Championships the kids get the chance to race against the best of the best. No, they don’t have Girl Scouts as trophy girls.

Just like in real racing, who your daddy is, can make all the difference in your on track success (just ask Dale Jr.) If your dad was a carpenter or a racecar driver, chances are you won your first pinewood derby. For the rest of you (who got your rears kicked by the kid whose dad was a racecar driving carpenter) here is how you win the pinewood derby. Weight is your friend. You want that car to weigh in at 5.0 ounces exactly (we bring our cars to the event heavy and then use a small drill bit to take out weight from the front end until the scale tips 5.04 ounces on the money – which rounds down to 5.0 ounces on the scale readout). Tungsten is a very dense metal and is great for placing weight in the car (use epoxy – anything else will let the weight fall out during the races). The center mass of the car should be as far back as possible to give the car a little extra boost of potential energy converted to kinetic energy as the car transitions from the slope of the track to the flat (Don’t believe me? Go read a physics book).

The wheels need to be as round as possible which can be done by spinning the wheel on a drill press and using some fine sandpaper. The nails, which are the axles, have small burs on them that actually slow the wheels down. The nails need to filed down to a perfect roundness and polished to a mirror image (this is allowed in the rules). A longer wheelbase makes the car more stable on the track. The wheels and axles should be aligned perfectly as they are placed in the car (use a tiny bit of super glue to set the axles and keep them from sliding out of the chassis). Rolling friction is not your friend so having one wheel off of the track (aligned higher in the chassis so the wheel doesn’t touch the ground) will cut your rolling resistance by 25%. Aerodynamics don’t play an enormous role in pinewood derby but building a car that looks like a sailboat with a huge sail on the roof isn’t helping matters. My son’s car had six coats of paint on it and was wet sanded between coats just for a little extra aerodynamic advantage.

If you really want to win, build a scale practice track and then construct ten cars (I’m serious). Race all of them against each other
and the winner goes to the show. Every racer knows that testing and tuning is what really wins championships.


Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here:

FUEL (Cost): The fuel gauge is near full because this is the cheapest racing on the planet.

RPMs (Adrenaline): The tachometer is at 800 RPMs because watching a piece of wood roll down a wooden track doesn’t really compare to sliding a car sideways at an autocross. However, you can get your adrenaline up by winning some races.

MPH (Danger): The speedometer is at 5 miles per hour because nobody has ever been killed racing a pinewood derby car. However, building the car, you can lose a finger messing around with the drill press.

VOLTS (Time): The volts gauge is over three quarters because this doesn’t take much time to race but you can spend over a week sanding and painting your little wooden car. Then again I’ve seen some kids and dads build the kit during tech inspection at the event (no, they didn’t win).

MILEAGE (Car Wear): The mileage is at just over one tenth of a mile because the track is only about forty feet long. As your car continues to win rounds, you’ll keep racing.

Kids can learn a lot about actual racing from participating in the pinewood derby. They can learn how preparation and a sorted car can bring home victory. They can also learn how nutty their dad is when he starts to go all Penske on the car and tries to build it for him. The important thing is to let the kids build the cars (or at least let them think they built them, anyway). See you at the track.

Originally published December 6th, 2009 on speedsportlife.com
Used by permission

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 14

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Pinewood Derby Memory – Some Things Never Change

I just celebrated my 75th birthday. I had five sons all who eventually became Eagle Scouts, and of course all five sons were in Cub Scouts also, and we began to participate in pinewood derbys beginning in 1970. My oldest son is now 50, and my youngest son, 35, so it has been a long time since I have been involved with pinewood derbies in any way. However, my sons won every single pinewood derby that they entered over a 15 year period of time, and whenever we encountered a track with timers, we invariably broke the track record.

However, now my grandsons have reached Cub Scout age, and recently several of their fathers told their sons to contact Opa (that’s me), because I knew all the secrets to winning. On a hunch, last week I began surfing the Internet to see if there was anything regarding pinewood derbies. What a shock! After poring through your website, I see you have revealed every single trick we used, and not only that, but you now provide specialty tools making it much easier to accomplish what once took us 100’s of hours.


1. In those days there were no rules against extended wheels, so we created our own wooden jig to re-drill the holes often with many mistakes and many trashed blocks.

2. There was also no rule against lightening the wheels, so we bought a small hobby lathe and lightened the wheels in many different ways, including making them into discs, and drilling a dozen holes in them (quite similar to what you now sell). As a young man, I used to race sport cars, and had already learned the rule about lightening of unsprung weight (i.e., wheels, flywheels, crankshafts, piston rods, etc.), as well as allowing more weight in the body.

3. We reasoned logically that as much weight as possible should be as far to the rear as possible, thus leaving more weight on the downhill portion of the track. So we would actually saw a square hole into the rear of the block, temporarily clamp two pieces of wood on each side of the hole, then melt core-less lead solder into the hole, then after cooling, un-clamp the two pieces of wood, thus leaving a perfectly square hunk of lead at the extreme far rear of the car (If tracks had an abrupt change from the downhill portion to the flat, this would not work with our an extended wheel base, because when hitting the “dip”, the front wheels would sometimes rise up). When rules began to be touchy about the wheel base, no one ever seemed to are if the rear wheels were moved further back, they seemed more concerned about the front wheels. So sometimes we left the front wheels standard with the rear moved back a bit.

4. Our car shapes were always very similar to two of your kits (Detonator and Velocinator), except that the wood area between the front and rear wheels was always sanded down to about the size of a pencil, then just in front of the rear wheels we would shape the wood up to about an inch high. Our logic of having a higher rear end with a square back was based upon the sports car theory that if the front of the car is very aerodynamic with the back of the car squared off, the wind supposedly whips around and pushes the car forward. I have no way of knowing if this really worked, but that is what we always did.

5. Our major secret which we never revealed, was to balance the wheels. I never heard of anyone doing this in those days. The older pinewood derby wheels were always very much out of balance. We balanced them by putting two razor blades into a rubber eraser, cutting and putting a tight-fitting nail into the wheel hole and placing it between the two razor blades. Just like when using your balancing tool, the heavy side always went down. Since we had always drilled eight holes into the wheels (similar to a mag wheel), we balanced the wheel with a normal hand drill by making the hole on the heavy side slightly larger.

Obviously everyone in those days would make sure the car ran straight by testing it on a hardwood floor. However, even though many cars were running on three wheels, we were never able to make any of our cars faster by using that method. We had built a single wooden track with a 1/1000 timer, and could never find a difference using the same car before and after raising one wheel.

All of the tracks in those days were made of wood, often causing accidents due to a car jumping tracks. Since we had to lathe our own wheels, and with all the holes we put in them, they were very fragile. Each time we would create a set of wheels we would always create 8 wheels in each of the lathe passes. A couple would always break during the lathing process, but we would always have two or three spares that were exact matches. There was hardly ever an event where we didn’t have to replace at least one wheel.

As to axle polishing, grooving, and the utilization of graphite, we did about the same as you are doing today.

In conclusion, tweaking one of your car kits and using your wheel accessories is obviously the way I will go with my grandsons. Thank goodness for your website. As costly as some of those items are, it is certainly a cheaper and quicker way to go than the hundreds of hours that we used to spend in the olden days.

Roger Walton

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 13

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Pinewood Derby Car Showcase – March 24, 2010

Twins – Bruce Larson

Caden Larson won his pack championship with the green car. He used your Pro-Axle Guide and Axle Polishing Kit. Caden’s car went on to place in the top 3 at districts. That qualified him to race in the council Wolf race at the Mall of America where he finished 14th. The orange car won the pack’s parent and sibling race (avenging my loss to a little girl from the year before).

Sharkboy – Jeff Heath

Here is my son’s Bear entry for the Pinewood Derby. We have been using this design for a couple of years. He cuts, sands, and paints the car. The dome on the back is a lead fishing weight that we beat into submission with a hammer. We then created a design on the computer, printed it, cut it out and glued it to the top of the car. It was first at pack, second at District, and second at Council for speed. We had a great time thanks for all the great tips!

Silver Fork – Rick Ellis

My nine year old daughter ran this car in the Awana Truth and Training division. She designed it, painted it, and did the axle and wheel work. I helped with the layout and did the power tool work I didn’t think was safe for her to do. It took first place for speed and received the award for best workmanship in her division. It came in fourth in the Speed Finale where they race the winners of each division against each other.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 13

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Pinewood Derby Car Showcase – June 9, 2016

2007 Corvette Pace Car – Dave Noble

For this 2007 Corvette Pace Car I began with a plastic model and installed a pinewood frame with ball bearing wheels. Then I used the original Corvette wheels as hubcaps that do not spin. I can twist the front wheels which in turn will turn the slightly bent axles to steer the car straight. It is pretty fast, but I lost one exhaust pipe at the last race.

Here is a picture of my real pace car. It is the 3rd lowest VIN# and was delivered to the Indianapolis 500 in 2007.

Home Depot NASCAR – Chris & Jared Mahar

To build this NASCAR, we added wood onto the sides. This increased the overall front profile of the car over what it would have been if we’d used the solid block of wood, so it wasn’t aerodynamic at all. The four cars that beat us in the district race were all sleek low profile jobs, but we didn’t lose by much. Perhaps in this case aerodynamics would have made a difference.

Because we were copying a NASCAR we had to leave the wheelbase more forward in the car than I would have liked. It was still rear-weighted, but the center of gravity was about 0.75 inches further forward than if we had pushed the wheelbase back as far as it will go.

I had to hollow out the block of wood a lot to get weight out of the front of the car. We used about 2.5 ounces of tungsten in the rear, and trimmed with lead wire. Since we routed out a lot of wood in the front, there were big holes in the bottom, so we sheeted over them with 1/64th plywood.

We used images of the actual NASCAR from the Internet. For the body we used an orange paint, made some of our own stickers, and purchased the ‘sponsor’ stickers from a PineCar rack at our local hobby shop. Painting involved a lot of masking. Some of the black stripes were drawn on with a sharpie after masking. Headlights were hand-painted. Once all the stickers were on, we covered with a clear coat.

Pink VW – Breeley Blaylock

One of my scout’s sister, her father and I built this VW for the pinewood derby. It took us about three hours to cut it out. We made a few mistakes, but finally got it right. We had to cut out the windows on each side, and hollow the bottom to reduce the weight to five ounces.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 12

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Shop Talk – You Can Never Have Too Many Clamps

At least, this is what I was told by a professional cabinetmaker. In that profession the quantity of clamps is certainly important.  But for pinewood derby use, having one or two clamps of the right type will make your work much easier and more accurate.

There is a huge variety of specialty clamps available today, but we will focus on two types of clamps.  The first is a Quick-Grip clamp from Irwin, which is basically a bar clamp that is tightened by squeezing the handle.  A lever then quickly releases the clamp. Quick-Grip clamps range in size from very small to quite large.  For pinewood derby use, the smallest is the clamp of choice.

Figure 1 – Quick-Grip Mini Clamps

The second type of clamp is a Bar Clamp from Bessey.  This clamp (sometimes referred to as an “F-Clamp” is similar to a traditional “C-clamp” in that it tightens with a bolt. However, this Bar Clamp is superior to a  C-clamp in that it combines the bolt tightening method of the C-clamp with the adjustment mechanism of a bar clamp.  This provides a wider range of clamping applications and faster clamping action.

Figure 2 – Bessey Bar Clamp

My recommendation is to acquire one of the Bessey Bar Clamps, and a pair of Quick-Grip Micro Clamps (normally sold in pairs).  The combination of these two clamps will give you many options for clamping.  Here are a few examples.

Quick-Grip Clamp
The Quick-Grip Clamp is used where the size and force of a large clamp is not required.  Possibilities include holding a wood or metal part to the pinewood derby car body while the adhesive dries, and holding a wood chip in place when repairing a flaw.

Bar Clamp
The Bessey Bar Clamp is used where a larger force is required. Generally this is needed when the block must be sawed, drilled, or shaped with a file (an optional method for filing is described below).

Combination Clamping
Sometimes it is helpful to use both clamps in combination.  One opportunity is when a file (or Dremel-type tool) is used to shape the car body.  If the car is clamped to a work bench, then the sides and bottom edge of the car cannot be easily worked.

An alternative is to clamp the car to a narrow board using a Quick-Grip Clamp, and then clamp the board to the work bench with a Bar Clamp (see Figure 3).  This method of clamping allows much more freedom of access than if the car was directly clamped to the work bench.

Figure 3 – Combination Clamping

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 12

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